The Sultan of Swat

With this Red Oak kid around, houseflies didn’t stand a chance.

75 YEARS AGO

“Is there any record set for swatting flys?” runs a query on the website of Guinness World Records. The sole reply: “idk [I don’t know] hahahhahaha nice idea try it!” But the LOL is on them, and not just for their atrocious orthography. Young E.T. Collier didn’t make Guinness, but he did make the papers in June 1934 when the Virginia Department of Health highlighted his impressive fly-swatting record in a news release designed to warn people about the hazards looming with summer housefly season.

     Three years in a row Collier, of Red Oak, in Charlotte County, whiled away the sweltering summer, swatter in hand, bagging unheard-of numbers of houseflies. He evidently kept meticulous records, then wrote the health department to brag about his exploits. In 1931, he claimed to have killed 44,477 flies, and the next year, 70,183. He hit his “high-swatter mark” in ’33, splatting 93,329 of the dirty dipterans. The Smith County News of June 7, under the headline “This Boy Should Have a Medal or Something,” took care of the math: “a total of 207,989 flies slain by the hand of a single protagonist.” And he wasn’t done: “Can you beat it? I am still on the job,” Collier wrote.

     Collier’s feat gave the health department’s message just the buzz it needed to focus attention on the housefly’s multipronged threat. It warned that the beast was the vector of such diseases as infantile diarrhea, tuberculosis and typhoid fever. Typhoid was still a killer at that time, and though it was on the wane, it would be about a decade before the invention of antibiotics, which would make the real dent. “Every fly killed is a gain,” read the story, in language smacking of war propaganda. E.T. Collier, hero.

     But 93,000? Nowadays, see just one and it’s “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” So why so many? Flies put rabbits to shame. “It only takes 10 days to go from egg to adult,” says Art Evans, entomologist with the Virginia Department of Conservation’s Division of Natural Heritage and author of What’s Bugging You? A Fond Look at the Animals We Love to Hate. “And they can have 10 to 12 generations in one summer.” All this egg-laying, 120 to 150 at a time, reported the article, takes place in the nastiest of spots, like garbage, or human or animal waste, and when the insects find their way to your table, rest assured they don’t wipe their feet.

     Today, houseflies aren’t the problem they were in Collier’s day, when many houses didn’t have screened windows and folks kept animals for food and transportation, says David Gaines, public health entomologist with the Virginia Department of Health. “Nowadays, most everybody has air conditioning during the fly season,” he says, “and they keep their houses locked up tighter than a box, so houseflies are pretty uncommon in the home.”

     Chances are, in Charlotte County in the ’30s, there were farm animals and flies aplenty. And though Collier’s not in the Guinness book, he was a one-man swat team. But what did he do in winter?  

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